The Hub

Sep 212013
 

Read me the story:
Pek-psMohv Quiddik was accustomed to being able to assess a situation quickly, sum up people with considerable accuracy, and create a reasonably reliable mental map of any given situation. But here at Headwaters, his talent kept eluding him.

They’d debriefed the target, gotten the permissions they needed to establish a perimeter for Anisala m’Anhadon and her— team? staff? family?— for the journey to Farn-Amli and the duration of the Small Cluster conference. As he’d assumed, he was Team Lead for target protection, with Declan Rawl in charge of threat assessment. The deal had been that they’d work alongside Anisala’s people, who, she explained, normally provided a perfectly adequate level of security.

Mohv took no one’s word about “adequate security,” but he’d been reasonably impressed, so far, with the arrangements at Headwaters. Among the rambling structures was a very well-equipped, well-designed saljo, and everyone worked out daily, including the children. Even Anisala did shadowflows from the Parsi tradition of hzajlit.

Mohv had wangled himself an invitation to work out with Chun and Stav, first using competition Tenso rules, and then freestyle. They were pretty good, and Stav was as fast a gun hand as Mohv himself. They’d urged him to work out with what they’d called, smirking, “the girls,” Pek and Tularik, whom everyone called Tuli.

“The girls” were regular sleep-shift bodyguards for Anisala. A little toning up would probably be helpful for them, at that.

Mohv showed up in the saljo to find them in mid warm-up. Pek was holding her right heel at full vertical extension, balanced on the ball of her left foot, left arm extended to balance—a moment arm as she tumbled forward, a blur of motion, the right leg slashing in full arc, right knee pulling in, bringing the left leg around in the same arc, landing with three-point balance, right hand and balls of her feet. Tuli, apparently paying no attention, was practicing lunges, but as Pek hit the three-point balance, Tuli changed the direction of her lunge, and one arm swept out to knock her off balance.

There was a flurry of limbs, some grunts, and the two women were locked together on the mat, Pek atop, her forearm jammed against the other woman’s neck, knee in the solar plexus. Tuli was hampered by having one arm beneath her, but her other hand was wrapped in Pek’s hair; she pulled, hard, but lacked leverage. Pek leaned in deliberately, and bit Tuli’s earlobe, eliciting a little gasp.

Mohv was glad his workout pants were loose.

“See what you get when you try to show off?” Pek eased up on her forearm. Her Translingue had a noticeable Mesrami accent.

Tuli grimaced. “Oh, I was the one showing off?” She looked significantly over the other woman’s shoulder.

Pek chuckled. “We have company, yes.” She rolled off her lover and to her feet in one smooth motion. Tuli bounced to her feet, stood beside her. Both tall women, not so tall as Mohv. Both dark-haired and slender, but there the resemblance ended. Pek was brown-skinned, dark-eyed, six or seven years older, with an aquiline nose and high, sharp cheekbones. Tuli’s fairer skin offset startlingly blue eyes, an unusual dark shade of blue, deep-set under straight, thick brows.

“Welcome Mister Quiddik, so you have decided to join us for a spar today?” Pek’s Mesrami accent had become more strongly marked, and Mohv wondered if she was putting it on for him.

“If you don’t mind, ladies,” Mohv was genial.

They both seemed amused. “Not at all. We like having new sparring partners,” Tuli assured him. “Will you warm up?”

Mohv nodded thanks, and began some stretches, a few shadowflows, loosening up. He felt self-conscious, although both women had turned away to do stretches of their own, alternating between solo and duo.

“Duo stretches, Mister Quiddik?” Tuli offered.

“Please, call me Mohv. And thanks, yes.” He positioned himself for isotonic deltoid stretches, offered an arm.

“I will help you warm up for Pek. She will take you on first.” She put her palm against his, locked her wrist, and leaned. Not much weight, compared to Mohv’s usual spar. He was careful to adjust tension. But as they moved through the six point stretch, she proved surprisingly strong.

They switched sides, and then swapped out direction, moving slowly through the standard variations. Once Tuli grunted disapproval and jabbed him lightly with an elbow when he was pushing too lightly, then grunted approval when he added pressure.

“All right, thanks.” She stood back, and nodded, and a grin flickered over her face. “Mohv… A word of advice?”

“Yes?” He lifted an eyebrow.

The flicker steadied into a smirk. “Don’t pull your strikes. If you try and take it easy on Pek, she’s likely to hurt you.”

Mohv nodded, gravely. “Thanks. I’ll be careful.”

Tuli’s smirk widened to a grin. “Your funeral.”

Twenty minutes later, Mohv understood. He stood back, massaging a very painful hip, and eying the older of the two women with considerable respect. He’d fought better opponents to a standoff, but none of them had been women. And he had an uneasy feeling that she’d been pulling her strikes a bit. He’d like to think it was a biomod alteration, but there were none of the signs. She wasn’t that strong, but she was unbelievably fast. And mean.

For her part, Pek was also massaging a shoulder, and there was a slight deepening at the corners of her mouth that might have been the ghost of a smile. “Not bad, Mister Quiddik. Not bad at all. Now would you like to take on Tuli with the blades?” She nodded to the practice blades on the wall.

“Let him fix that hip, first, Pek.” Tuli had gone over to an equipment locker and was rummaging in it. She turned, and tossed an ultraheal wand in Mohv’s direction. He caught it easily, nodded to her.

“I would, yes.” He bowed to Pek, a Tenso bow, which she returned, politely. “And please, it’s Mohv.”

“Alright, then, Mohv.” Pek’s Mesrami accent had almost vanished. She was stretching her shoulder, grimaced. “I’ll take the wand when you’re done, please.”

He applied it to his hip, feeling the warmth spread through, sharpen, and dissipate. He lunged once or twice, balanced a bit, then handed it to her, and walked over to inspect the practice blades.

Another twenty minutes later, he had no doubts at all of this particular bodyguard team’s ability to deal with ordinary close-order protection of the target. Tuli wasn’t Pek’s equal at hand-to-hand, but with the blades she was, if anything, faster. And uncannily accurate.

Sparring completed, the two women had exchanged glances, again, and then invited him, politely, to share a soak in the saljo’s radiant tub. By that time he was quite sure they were lovers, so it didn’t mean anything other than friendly courtesy, which was how he treated it. “Thanks, I’d like that.”

He went around the corner from the tub, where there were hooks and cubbies for the accommodation of guests, and stripped off his loose shirt and pants. He was half-hard, but what the hell, that happened occasionally during workouts. If they were single-sex oriented, it wouldn’t bother them, if they weren’t, well… again, what the hell.

Tuli was in the radiant tub already, and it was filling, the thick fluid glugging merrily out of the taps. Pek had a towel around her neck, and was bending over the tub control board. Mohv nodded to the women, and climbed into the tub without bothering to use the steps, hoisting himself over the side without apparent effort, and settling on the bench. It was designed to accommodate four, but he was a big man, so when Pek slung her towel on a rack and joined them, the tub was almost full. Tuli waved at the tap sensor and it shut off.

The three of them sat in silence for a few minutes, letting the heated radiant fluid swirl the tension out of them.

Finally, Tuli sighed, and stretched her arms along the tub rim. Pek scooted over just a little, to lay back against Tuli’s arm. She half-closed her eyes, but Mohv could feel her scrutinizing him. A lazy smile stretched her mouth; now, she looked more than a little beautiful. He was glad the radiant fluid was only translucent, not clear.

Tuli grinned, watching Mohv with a kind of bright interest. He swallowed, suddenly feeling much less relaxed. The grin broadened. “Stop it, Pek. We’re making Mohv nervous.”

“You’re making him nervous, maybe. I’m not the one with a taste for polemeat.” Pek chuckled and sat up, opening her eyes. “Don’t worry, Mohv. We won’t, um… eat you.”

Mohv considered several responses, settled on bland amiability. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“We like you, Mohv,” Tuli explained.

Mohv wondered why that didn’t make him feel all warm and happy, having two attractive women sharing a radiant tub naked tell him they liked him. He suspected he knew.

“Uh-huh,” Pek concurred. “We do. So, we thought we should tell you some stuff.”

“That’s right.” It was almost like a cross-talk routine. “We think you’re mostly honest.”

Mohv blinked, started to say something. But they’d moved on already.

“And we’ve done a fair bit of backwork on Kyth,” Pek informed him.

“Well, Nelauk has.” Tuli amended.

“Uh-huh. And we think as mercenary outfits go, it’s not the worst.” Pek continued.

Mohv was abruptly hyper-alert, as if in the presence of a threat. But what could it be?

“And Anisala wants to go along with this extra security deal. For now, anyway,” Tuli said.

Pek smiled, a warm, melting smile. “So we’re going along with it. For now.”

“But we wanted you to know something about that,” the friendly sincerity in Tuli’s voice could have sold used drone tugs to asteroid miners.

“Yup. Just a little thing.” Pek’s dark eyes suddenly pierced like lasers. “If there’s anything hinky planned, and you… or Kyth… is any part of it?”

She paused, but Mohv prudently chose to remain silent.

“I’ll kill you.”

Mohv looked into her eyes and believed her, absolutely.

Jul 302013
 

Read Me the Story:
Plena Revene-2

The cabin ComWeb chimed softly.

“Attention, Travelers. Inger Chevron, the Inger Lines’ newest liner in the ultra-luxury “Heraldic” series, has achieved final orbit around Plena Revene, home of Holiday Safari World’s Plena Leisure Parks. Disembarkation for Plena Leisure Park resorts will begin in one hour. Disembarking travelers may meet your resort shuttles in the bay indicated on your personalized Traveler’s Itinerary. Inger Lines wishes you an enjoyable stay and looks forward to carrying you on your return journey.”

The chimes and honeyed tones of the announcement produced a wave of activity. Passengers who’d ignored the downtransit announcement some hours back began hastily to pack belongings, activate luggage tags, tip their Personal Stewards (this was encouraged in the Traveler’s Tips provided by the Inger Lines at embarkation— amounts and methods were gently hinted,) assemble hand-carried belongings, and hurry to make their way to the shuttle bays. More experienced (or prepared) travelers ordered a final cocktail, exchanged comservice codes with new acquaintances, and/or used the opulently-appointed ’fresher facilities a final time, and made a more relaxed progress to the shuttle deck.

Tsangmen Shuli was one of those who’d waited to the last minute to pack— but she had very little to assemble. Standard-class travelers were allowed one stored and one cabin luggage item, and no more than three and a half kilos of mass to hand-carry. She’d debated paying for an additional stored luggage item, as she expected to be on Plena Revene much longer than the tenday holiday package she was booked for, but decided to travel light, instead. No sense raising eyebrows— or suspicions.

With an infinitesimal adjustment to the ships’ gravmag generators (barely noticeable to the passengers,) the Chevron opened its massive shuttle deck bay gate, ready for the half-dozen atmosphere-to-orbit craft that were already lifting, perfectly coordinated, from the various Resort Centers.

Shuli found the queue forming to board the shuttle to the Oceans and Islands Center, Plena Parks’ premier attraction in the modest price range. She was booked for a popular standard holiday package, the “Floating Islands” resort targeted to family, convention, and leisure-oriented customers. It provided a variety of beach and boat options that focused on tours, food, and leisure services rather than adventure or athletic recreation. It was just the kind of thing Shuli would have carefully avoided, had she not been following her new employers’ instructions: Blend in.

The queue moved slowly, as each passenger had to have a retina print taken, and various documentation verified. And of course every third or fourth person had misfiled their Itinerary, or put it on a comgle which had then been relegated to an inaccessible pocket or luggage compartment.

There was a short hissing sound, a modest rumble, and then the hatch for the shuttle boarding opened, and the queue began to move a little faster.

An older couple she’d exchanged pleasantries with a few times aboard the Chevron waved at Shuli and indicated a seat in their row; she smiled back and joined them. He’d managed some kind of food processing unit for a branch of the Hoyval Multifoods consortium, but retired on employee shares; she was a voice recorder for some media company. They were celebrating an anniversary with a two-tenday “Outer Islands” package that included snorkeling and floatsailing and a “private cabanienda” with a view of the Rainbow Lagoon.

Shuli’d admired the brochure they’d shown her, and told them she’d recently Certified in Advanced Level Archaeobotany (true,) and was combining a certification present holiday from her parents (a lie, they were both dead and she was older than she looked) with a chance to observe Holiday Safari Worlds’ terraform littoral bioengineering achievements (half-truth, she’d probably see some of that but it wasn’t what she was here for.) They’d shared a couple of meals, and Shuli had taught the she-half of the couple to play Scratch in the Chevron’s Casino, with moderate success. As shipboard acquaintances, they fit nicely into her profile and helped her blend in.

The shuttle filled with no more than the predictable number of hitches- people with oversized hand-carries, parties wanting to rearrange already-occupied seating so they could sit together, nervous travelers with urgent queries for the staff about shuttle safety (excellent) and journey time (1.3 standard hours to the Palmwinds shuttleport.) But eventually everyone was strapped in, and another hiss, and a rumble, and the hatch was closed. A slight gravitic hiccup—a sensation like a very short bounce in a fast-rising elevator—and the shuttle was free of the liner’s gravmag distortion.

The transition to the shuttle’s pseudograv generator was seamless. Shuli felt herself getting light—about one-third standard gee, she estimated. Just enough to keep everyone’s breakfast in place. A few more barely-noticeable bumps as the shuttle’s directional adjustments were laid in, and a momentary sense of increased gee as the pilot applied just enough thrust to drop them into Plena Revene’s gravity well.

“Welcome, Adventurers!” a hologram of an attractive couple in exotic, colorful beach gear appeared on the overhead presentation stage at the front of the shuttle compartment. They were smiling and waving.

“Plena Leisure Parks is happy to welcome you to the Oceans and Islands Experience! Your shuttle will arrive at Palmwinds port in approximately one point three standard hours, and surface transit and docents, couriers, and sherpas will meet you at the port after you complete entrance formalities.” The male hologram was cheery, matter of fact.

“May I suggest that if you haven’t yet reviewed the Basic Complete Disclosure presentation, and filed your Liability Waiver, you use the journey time to do so? This will expedite your entrance processing. This shuttle is linked to the Plena Leisure Parks ComWeb system, and you may view the presentation on your individual presentation stage by touching the blue button on your armrest.” The female hologram was warmly confiding.

Shuli had dutifully viewed all of the recommended Complete Disclosure presentations for her holiday package, and filed her Liability Waivers from aboard the Chevron. She’d found them quite funny, actually. The idea that anyone signing up for a safari holiday wouldn’t realize that yes, they’d be exposed to potentially hazardous terrains, non-standard biological entities, and even “random and potentially uncomfortable extremes of environmental conditions,” was baffling. What did they expect? It was all legal stuff, of course—required by Hub Mercantile Conventions for the covering of HSW’s butt.

The holograms rambled on about the entertainment channels available during the shuttle journey, then wished everyone an “Amazing Adventure!” and vanished.

She managed to lose the friendly older couple during the entrance formalities, by heading off to a ComWeb kiosk while they queued up for entry processing. By the time they’d boarded the floatbus with the Rainbow Lagoon logo, Shuli was in line for the Floating Islands resort check-in, blending nicely near-but-not-with a large group of conventioneers.

The Floating Islands resort offered a choice of floatbus transport: A short transit directly from the port, more or less at surface level (about fifteen minutes’ ride) or the 90-minute “glassbottom floatbus tour” that circled the Oceans and Islands complex and provided a “True bird’s-eye view of this marvel of terraform engineering and environmental design!” Shuli opted for the tour.

She’d known it would be impressive—she’d spent a lot of time studying the HSW tri-dees and even some of the technical reports about how their resorts were designed and constructed. They really did push the envelope of bioeme design and habitat construction, combing Life Banks for usable specimen material and employing the most advanced habitat control technology. They put it all together to re-create an incredible variety of intricate, complex environments on a vast scale. Everything from re-creations of imagined Old Terra, to “Colonial Altair,” “Galania before humanity,” and fantastic hybrids of imagination and reality that involved every conceivable combination of (reasonably safe) “natural” conditions and life forms.

But actually seeing it unroll beneath you… They’d flown over one end of Oceana Plena, nearly 3 million square kilometers of saltwater habitat teeming with terraform life. They’d seen a herd of large cetaceans, the guide had called them “narwhales,” breaching and milling around a massive tour ship. Islands clustered around brilliantly colored, jewel-like lagoons, ringed with outer bastions of rock formations like twisted bridges and fountains, gleaming in the brilliant light. Beyond that a chain of larger islands, with cliffs and mountains—one nearly five thousand meters high!

They’d overflown the main shoreline—majestic pale cliffs at the north end and a rugged, rocky coastline that merged into a classic littoral zone. Then a river delta and marshes, and beyond that, coves, bays, and sandy beaches merging into a peninsula and another chain of islands, this one including a small, perfectly-simulated (but not tectonically active, the guide assured them,) volcano!

And the vegetation. Everywhere, the vegetation. Specimens Shuli had seen only in stasis labs and arcodishes and holorecs. Hectares of mixed marsh grasses, sedges, reeds… SEAweeds washing in with the waves. Islands full of tropical specimens, flowers, fruit, palms. An incredible variety; she hadn’t even tried to keep count of the categories, much less individual species.

She had been told to wait until the third day of her stay—and then sign up for the “Insider’s Tour” of the Parks Management complex. At a certain point in the tour, she was to ask a certain question of the guide.

Sometime after that, her new job would begin.

As the floatbus made a wide, curving approach to the Floating Islands Resort and began to descend in front of the rambling Golden Jasmine Inn, she reflected that the next two days might seem very long indeed.

Jul 292013
 

Read Me the Story:
Basic CMYKThe Lodis Chevron arrived in normal space just outside the Plena system one Relative Elapsed hour earlier than predicted on the liner’s itinerary, well within standard parameters for that route. Another six point eight hours on Insystem drive would put them in orbit around Plena Revene, which would already have shuttles standing by to launch and receive the holiday makers headed for Holiday Safari Worlds’ premier resort complex, Plena Leisure Parks.

During an average local day cycle, between eleven and seventeen major passenger ships called at Plena Revene, serving a daily average of 28,000 arrivals and departures, which called for efficient traffic management from the six Plena ports—Palmwinds, Glacierflash, Rivermusic, Junglethrob, Mountainair, and Forestwater. It also made it relatively easy for a traveler to be unobtrusive in their arrival and departure.

Jen-zi Cheyn, Chief Executive of Holiday Safari Worlds, liked being unobtrusive. He normally booked commercial transit for his site inspection jaunts—and nothing about this trip would vary significantly from his normal practices. Equally normal, though not invariable, was calling for a special pickup from Plena Parks management complex.

The small atmosphere-to-orbit vehicle that had been dispatched to the Chevron to fetch Jen-zi was not one of the Plena Parks’ fleet of shuttles. Unlike those larger vehicles, it was designed to carry a maximum of six passengers, could be piloted by a single individual, and it had a fast field-bounce drive unit that made it ideal for short hops between the fourteen separate Parks facilities dispersed over the surface of Plena Revene.

“Ten Cheyn?” the driver wore a standard coverall and the patch of Parks Management. She was a cheerful-looking, athletic young woman who differed from standard HSW guest services personnel only in a slightly heightened alertness. When he settled in the front seat next to her, she cleared her throat, and said diffidently, “Excuse me, Ten, but I was instructed to verify…?” She indicated a security jack on the operation console. He stuck a finger on the pad for a micro-sample and DNA match. The indicator winked blue, and she smiled. “Thank you, Ten Cheyn.”

“Thank you, Ti…?”

“Navrit. Luras Navrit.”

“Thank you Ti Navrit.” He sat back and let her do her job, but once the initial flight check was completed, she turned to him. “I was told to take the final coordinates from you, Ten Cheyn.”

She had the clearance, or she wouldn’t have been assigned to this task. He gave her the coordinates of the officially nonexistent research and development facility. She entered them, then looked at him blankly. “Needs additional clearance?”

“Oh, right.” Jen-zi activated his implant and provided the extra key. Once the nav board went blue, the pilot carefully disengaged from the Chevron’s gravmag field, made a few minor adjustments with the directionals, and applied just enough thrust to drop them back into the Plena Revene gravity well.

An hour later he was being greeted by Ros Maklenan. “Jen-zi!” Ros was jubilant. “We’ve done it!”

His excitement was contagious. Jen-zi found himself walking faster, and by the time they reached the centropticon, they were both practically running.

“We started with a micro-habitat. Three hundred and sixteen eukaryotes, all from Procyon-D biotopes, and a thousand, eight hundred and nine prokaryotes, most from Procyon-D, but this is the amazing thing—we couldn’t get true life-tropes—well, you know that part. I really have to give the credit to Mayala T’quan, she was the one who thought of tracking the levels of proteinogenic biosynthites. The amazing thing—we were seeing high levels of a pseudo-aminoglycoside, a homolog of the kacin series…”

Jen-zi racked his brain for the specific biochemistry, had to ping his implant for help. It had been too many years since he’d spent any time in a life-lab. “And that would jigger up several classes of prokaryotes?”

“Jigger… Well, yes, more or less. We went looking for a congruent dystope. Scanned the entire Procyon-D biobanks, every known storage facility.”

“And wasn’t that FunCluster Central.”

By this time they were at the control station, and Suva had joined them. She grinned, a flash of white teeth. “We had to route our search requests through so many proxies I am thinking some of them are still working their way through the U-League documentary protocols. And in the end, for nothing. It wasn’t a…”

Ros interrupted, his glee bubbling over— “It wasn’t a xenobiote at all! That’s the amazing thing! It was a terratype—a virus! Well… viroid, really. And… this is the great part… it’s a common one!”

Suva made a noise not unlike a snort. “If you can call a viroid a biotope.”

“If it acts like life…”

They were clearly off and running on chapter two hundred and twelve of an ongoing publication.

“But it worked?” Jen-zi yanked them back to the topic at hand.

“Well, not at first.” Mayala had arrived. She gave Jen-zi a nod and a grin. “In fact, at first we wrote it off as contamination and were ready to dump the whole arcodish.”

Ros took over again. “But then Maya thought of taking the biosynthite levels one more time, just to establish a reference for another iteration. And there it was! Sustenance and reproduction, throughout the spectrum.”

“At first,” Suva pointed out. “Then we started seeing a bloom-die cycle among the oratinids. We managed to stabilize it by taking some of the low-UV ’topes out and replacing them with higher-sensitivity range versions. And then…”

She stopped, probably because of the hand gesture Jen-zi was making. They all stopped, grinning at him—a grin reflected on his own face, where it looked unaccustomed, but welcome.

“So?”

They looked at each other. Ros made a “follow me” gesture.

They went through a vacuum-lock, coming out in a small room with a scattering of tools and equipment leaning up against one wall, and a rack of meters and sensor probes on the other. At the far end was a simple—and unlocked—airlock-type exit door. He grabbed a multiprobe from the rack, handed it to Jen-zi. “Here. You’ll want this.”

They stepped practically together through the door. Ros was obviously trying to hang back, to allow the boss the experience of going first, and equally obviously couldn’t control himself, he was so eager to get out there.

To anyone accustomed to the lush habitats in the Plena Revene resorts, it would have been mystifying and a little disappointing. They stepped out into Plena’s natural sunlight, only slightly filtered by a tavis field. There was no jathrin dome here.

And he was breathing.

He could see the edges of the tavis field. This wasn’t a large space, maybe two and a half klicks in diameter altogether. The terrain was uneven, sloping upward steeply to the left, and irregularly, like a line of miniaturized mountains. A natural crevasse—Plena Revene’s surface had many of them—cut the landscape obliquely, near the far edge of the tavis field, ahead.

Unlike the spectacular vegetation featured among the resort habitats, life forms here clustered loosely, thinned out, apparently vanished altogether, in spots. A flash of motion caught his eye to the right, and vanished. Too quick to see what it was, other than macro-dimensional, and motile.

There was an odd effect around the edge of his vision, and suddenly Jen-zi realized he had forgotten to breathe, and filled his lungs with an explosive gasp. He looked down.

Life was everywhere. Stains on the rocks were lichen homologs from the Procyon-D life banks. Among the scree and dust around his feet he could see organic matter, tiny scraps of the dusty blue-green, lavender-brown, and rusty colors that predominated among specimens he’d seen, until now, only in stasis slides or tri-dee repros.

He realized he was holding something—the multiprobe. He took a few simple readings. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, minute traces of nitrogen and methane. Airborne prokaryotic biotopes. Ros, still grinning, was watching him. He touched the boss’s arm, said softly “Don’t move. Look to your left, and down, about one-thirty-five-degrees, about six meters ahead.”

Jen-zi looked, moving only his eyes. This time the flash of motion resolved itself… About half the size of his closed fist. He’d only seen them in holos. They’d been a major, almost dominant, life-form in the tundra-like equatorial zones of Procyon D prior to its terraforming. They were small, unspectacular omnivores. Unlike a few xenobiotopes that had been preserved and replicated, researched and integrated into various commercial and recreational functions (Holiday Safari Worlds used most of them, in various settings,) this creature had never offered any promise of entertainment, function, or profit to humanity. And so, it had languished in the life banks, for centuries. Catalogued, described. Of interest only to a few xenobiologists.

“A lorrtel.”

Ros nodded. The creature sensed the motion, vanished from view. “We introduced them nearly a year ago. They have a very short reproductive cycle, you know? Three generations, already.”

The quiet pride in his voice was more eloquent than his earlier enthusiasm.

“Higher life forms.”

“Uh-huh. And look—” he gestured again. A tufty bit of vegetation Jen-zi didn’t recognize, with a greenish-blondish color to it.

“Terraform?”

“It’s a version of the danthonia that’s employed in the early stages of the Type-4 terraforming process. Do you know, we had to retro-engineer the DNA? I think we got close to its original form, but I wish we could consult with one of the paleobotany people at New Lexandri. Strivek or Mellanbel, maybe.”

He was asking permission, obliquely. “I’ll see what I can do, Ros. Maybe there’s a way.” New Lexandri was heavily subsidized by the big habitat-design industries. U-League security was a sieve when it came to information, and that by design, but it posed a continuing challenge for anyone who wanted to stay off the radar of mercantile R&D espionage.

And now, their own operational security had just ratcheted up to a whole new level.

(Special thanks to Chuck and Peter for voices.)

Jul 132013
 

Read Me the Story:
hotsy-totsy-PSThe Cast Manager of Club Priape looked him over, and Lewji obligingly turned, slowly, striking a pose. No reason not to. Stav Benthik’s employers did not stint on the quality of their tools, and the biosculp they’d sprung for, before he left Lyad Retsa, had been top quality in its class. He now looked ten years younger than his calendar age, somewhat enhanced where it would count the most, and a whole lot less experienced.

Of course, the biosculp had been accompanied by the implantation of a sensory recording net, add-on modules for the existing mastoid implant, and enough other thises-and-thats to make him feel like a virtual, if temporary, cyborg. It had taken an extra thirty hours or so just to run it all in and get it functioning smoothly.

“I see you had your physical exam and license review on Mesram Xina,” she glanced at the readfield on her desk, then returned to looking him over with practiced attention. “The license review is fine, but we have local regs, so you’ll have to re-do the physical here. But if you pass, we can prep you at the same time, and the fee will be on us.”

That meant A) he’d gotten the contract, and B) Club Priape was every bit as high-end and professional as Stav had indicated it would be. First hurdle passed. Stav had warned him that Priape was “clean— we have nothing to do with it, no connections. Has to stay that way. That’s partly why we’re using you on this job.”

The license was a put-up job, just like the illicit ID he was using, but again, it was top quality. And he’d done enough sex work in the past to pass as licensed. Prepping was a disagreeable necessity for health and safety reasons, but it also enabled a sex worker to use MetaTest safely, and that made the job a whole lot easier. “I’m fine with that,” he told her.

She finally cracked a smile. It wasn’t much of a smile, and it didn’t go beyond the lower half of her face, but it was enough. “Alright, last check, let’s get a retina, and you can stat-print the contract.” She tossed him the Eye-D. He caught it, blinked into it, and it confirmed his ID and initiated the standard InfoWeb searches— clean, of course. He placed it on the desk; she was already reviewing the results.

“Good. Here’s the contract, eyeball it and statprint. It’s a class 2 temp; if we like your work, we’ll upgrade after three payouts— that’s in section twelve.” She handed him a flatreader with eyeball tracker and built-in Eye-D scan, a standard legal registration tool. “You can sit, if you want,” she gestured to one of the couches on a side wall.

Lewji shrugged, and kept reading. Not fast enough to invalidate the track, but not terribly attentively, either. It was a standard employment contract that obligated them to do nothing but pay him if they felt like it, and gave them legal cover to kick his ass out anytime they wanted. Final execution contingent on the outcome of the legally-required physical exam and successful completion of the “FuckPrep Select” temporary biomod process.

The validation clause at the bottom flashed red when he reached it, and supertext appeared over the readfield: ‘To validate this agreement, activate Eye-D scan and read validation clause into audio pickup.’ He found the activation slide, blinked into the scanfield, and said, “I, Jannas Tango, register my agreement under Hub Mercantile Code Section nine-eight-two, for the execution of this agreement, identified as delta-six-ed-four-one, with Club Priape and its parent corporation Pandor Entertainment Limited.”

The clause turned blue, and he handed the flatreader back to his new boss. “Great. Go get your physical, and report for wardrobe review and New Cast orientation at half-seventeen.”

Jul 112013
 

Read Me the Story:
Old AuriganThey were meeting in the Old Aurigan café and social club, as usual.

Lewji was pretty sure Stav Benthik had an office somewhere. He was also pretty sure he knew who Stav worked for, but in neither case did he make the slightest attempt to confirm or deny his assumptions. Stav was a customer, a special, valuable customer, and Lewji’s business ethics deemed customer privacy utterly sacrosanct.

Of course, he hadn’t worked for Stav, lately. The last job had been… about two years ago. A simple delivery, handled with the unobtrusive discretion that Lewji thought of as his trademark. He’d made the delivery, he’d checked his credit balance a couple of hours later. The payment had been there. He hadn’t heard from Stav since, which wasn’t too surprising.

The downeast stratline had brought him into the commercial sector of the city’s Kedwalit node. Kedwalit was a virtual warren, left over from Lyad’s precolonial settlement, and there was only the one stratline platform and damn few working slideways, so he’d have to take pedways most of the way.

Stav had once, six years or so back, intimated that if Lewji wanted regular employment, he’d be accommodated. That was after a particularly tricky series of contracts, finally culminating in some bottom line work, which again, Lewji had handled well. He didn’t much care for bottom line work, though he’d undertake it as needed to complete a contract. And he was very good at planning and executing undetectable and convenient “accidents” when needed.

There’d been talk of a bonus, which Lewji turned down— a matter of policy. He set his fees, with minimal negotiation, and they were ‘inclusive.’ So Stav had hinted about regular employment, which Lewji’d been briefly tempted by, but it would probably have involved more travel than he’d want. Junari was younger then, and he didn’t like leaving her alone with his mother too long. The old woman was a terrible influence.

He’d just said he currently wanted to spend more time with his daughter than regular employment might allow, and hoped that wouldn’t be misinterpreted. Stav’s employer, he felt, would be bad people to get crossways of. But Stav had seemed to understand. He’d noted that “the bosses” were pleased with Lewji’s work, and would find some acceptable way of showing it.

A few months later, Junari taken Academy quals and come out near the top. Even with top quals, there was no guarantee a kid could get a good Academy slot; there were never enough slots available. But a recommendation, from some senior ’crat in the Lyad Retsa Education & Training division Lewji’d never heard of, had tipped the balance.

Since then, Stav had occasionally asked about “your girl’s” progress at the Academy, in a glancing sort of way. Lewji had mixed feelings about that. On one hand, he was fairly sure there wasn’t much Stav’s employer didn’t know about him, and probably Junari, and probably his mother, as well. And letting him know they knew… that could be a sign that they regarded him as a trusted associate, or just that they knew which strings to pull. Or both.

He checked the marker coming up for the next slideway— Malgar Conduit. When the slideway ended, he turned into the crowd, walking mostly against the tide of homebound shift-changers. It was still daycycle, but in this neighborhood, most businesses kept their nightcycle lights on all twenty-four. Many of them had music blaring over the pedways, as well, just a fraction of a decibel below the “public nuisance” threshold.

The Old Aurigan was about a kilometer from the intersection, but the slideway on this section of Malgar hadn’t operated for years. Instead, it had become an informal market point for casual vendors of everything from sex to toothpaste. The gaffers swept through often enough to keep things “casual,” (no one sold anything they couldn’t pick up and carry away fast) but some of the vendors had occupied their particular pitches for years.

Lewji kept to the pedway. About halfway there, the ambience began to change. Not spectacularly, but definitely. The competing strains of music were just a little less loud, a little less strenuous. Aimed at a crowd that could remember the musical fashions from a couple of decades ago. There were fewer EZshops, cleaning establishments, fast eateries, tempsculp parlors, and more betting shops, oases, and sit-down eateries. Light displays were a tad less garish.

And there, on the corner of Malgar and East 112th, was his destination. Unobtrusive, and a little shabby. No display lights, just a sign, and a dusty display window with an ancient still life of wine carafes and fake Chendillian food items, to which some wag had added a few pieces of formidable-looking cutlery, a joke appreciated only by those in the know. It didn’t even look open, this time of day. But Lewji passed his hand over the sensor and the door opened.

Inside was very different. Clean, for one thing. The lighting level was low without being dim, and the décor, though old-fashioned, was relaxed in character and had once been expensive. There were few patrons, this time of day—a table of four on one side of the main dining area, another deuce by an archway that led to the back premises, two women sitting at the end of the bar nearest the front door, and a man sitting at the far end of the bar: Stav Benthik.

“Lewji. Good to see you.”

“Stav.”

“Glass of caldos?” Stav lifted the small footed glass in front of him suggestively.

“Pleasure, thanks.”

Lewji sat down, nodded to the bartender, and accepted a similar minute glass of the very strong apple cordial. He disposed of it properly, and eyed Stav with patient enquiry while the little fireball he’d swallowed spread through his torso, up his spinal column, over his scalp, and brought a mild sweat to the back of his neck.

“There’s a Small-Cluster conference coming up. On Farn-Amli.”

Lewji put on his negotiating face, and nodded. A Small-Cluster conference? That was out of his usual sphere of operations. He ran a few quick mental calculations on why they might need a freelancer, and came up with some interesting totals. This would not be a small job.

“We’d like to get you in place well before the conference opens, and keep you there throughout. Multiple targets, multiple objectives. Tiered.”

“So what are we talking about, in the way of time, here?”

Stav’s eyes rolled upwards as he worked out some internal calculation. “To Farn-Amli… The conference itself… You’d need to leave fairly soon. Then figure, twelve- maybe thirteen hundred hours altogether, including travel time.”

The negotiating face didn’t slip, but Lewji considered the eight or nine weeks—that would be pretty much the entire offterm. Granted, Junari would be at that Starna Lake Camp for five of those weeks, but still, he’d hoped to spend more time with her, when Camp was over. Maybe take her on a trip to Lyad Center, let her pick out some upend clothes for her final year at the Academy.

On the other hand, a job of this size and complexity could be lucrative. Even on a half-subsidy, the Academy wasn’t cheap.

“Tell me more.”

Stav lifted an eyebrow. “I can do that. Under an erase agreement.”

Lewji didn’t care for erasure, but it didn’t have many long-term side effects any more. It was just annoying. You always knew something had been erased, if not what. Like an itch you could never scratch. And because of the way erasure worked, it had to be text. No verbal, no questions and answers— that left different memory traces, problematic for erasure.

“All right. Erase agreement.”

Stav poked at his wristcom. “Okay, you got it. Want a beer while you’re looking it over?”

“No thanks,” Lewji was already pulling up the readfield, adjusting it for the dim light in here. Stav shrugged, signaled the barkeep for a beer for himself, and turned to watch the holostage above the bar, where coverage of the Retsa Cluster finals in the Central Axis Peiball League was underway.

The text rolled out on the readfield. It was a complex job. A couple of deliveries. Sensory recording. Observation. And…

Oh, great. Sex work.

Jul 062013
 

Read me the story
Honor Roll CertificateIt was a little difficult to tell whether the enthusiasm of the applause was attributable to the quality of the performance, or the fact that it was that last one on the schedule. Either way, the smiles it brought to the faces of the dozen or so eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds on the stage were enough to prolong it another ten seconds.

“Thank you very much,” the poised youngster who stepped forward to the front of the stage gestured for silence, and received it. “We’d like to thank our Precep, Ti Vundaras,” he gestured at the smiling young woman standing at the side of the stage, who waved a little, then motioned for him to continue. “And we’d like a special round of applause for Junari Ulongo, who adapted the story of the Three Lost Starfarers for our script.”

That was a request Lewji Ulongo could grant with fervor, as the Precep gestured to his daughter from the other side of the stage and the applause swelled again. Junari walked over to stand by the boy at the front of the stage, who made a theatrical mime of gathering the cast together, and all the children bowed again.

The plaudits completed, parents extricated themselves from the slightly-too-small seats, and straggled out to the “lobby” area in front of the academy’s Media Center. Here several tables of refreshments awaited them, and the youthful performers, who were starting to stream out from the backstage area.

Lewji positioned himself where he could see Junari right away when she came out, which also happened to be where half a dozen other parents were queuing for hot cafchi, dispensed by one of Junari’s Preceps. The man grinned at him “I will miss Junari very much, when the new term starts, Ten Ulongo.”

One of the other parents, a blondish woman with a biosculp that definitely hadn’t been worth what she’d paid for it, turned to smile at Lewji. “I should think so! Such a talented little girl!” He’d chatted with the woman briefly before the show began, but for the life of him Lewji couldn’t remember whether her kid was male or female.

Think fast, Lewi… “I think we can both congratulate ourselves on the general excellence of our offspring, don’t you?” His return smile was calculated nicely to distract her without offering insult, and it had its effect. “Oh… Well, I know that Trokip and Junari haven’t always been, ah… friends, but I think they have a lot in common!”

Oh, yes. Trokip. Trokip Temagun. Junari described him as “Eight hundred cc’s of vacuum between the ears with slightly less personality than a lint ball.” But he was a good-looking lad, if he was the one Lew was thinking of… winner of this year’s Mixed Tenso combat medal. “Yes, quite a lot,” he offered. That was true, if age, human DNA, general area of residence, and attendance at the Ermetyne Academy were placed in the “shared characteristics” column.

There she was! Lewji extricated himself without letting his relief show. “There’s my girl…” he murmured, turning to meet his daughter emerging from the cross-corridor that ran behind the venue stage. She separated herself from a small cluster of classmates, and looked a little surprised at the hug he offered. They weren’t normally demonstrative in public. Then she caught sight of Ti Temagun by the cafchi table, smiling and waving. “Oh, right. Let’s go over here, Dad. I want to introduce you to Ti Vundaras, she’s been great.”

They made their way among the little knots of parents, students, and Academy staff, to where the young Precep was chatting to a set of parents with twins who’d appeared in Junari’s “Endless Search” one-act playlet. Well, Lewji thought of it as Junari’s, though technically it was her whole pod’s project. “Ti Vundaras, this is my father, Lewji Ulongo. Dad, Ti Vundaras preceps Creative Expression for all the Upper Division pods.”

“A pleasure, Ti Vundaras,” Lewji placed his palms together, and nodded, and she returned the gesture. “The pleasure is mine, Ten Ulongo. It has been such a joy to work with your daughter this term, she has a most creative imagination, and a flair for writing.”

“She only says that because I can’t act for sparklets. So they had to find something else for me to do.” Junari caught sight of her father’s lifted eyebrow. “I’m not flapdowsing, honest! I flopped every audition. Besides, what chance did I have with these two in the lineup?” She exchanged grins with the twins, who looked alike enough to be identical, except for the sex differentiation.

Lewji greeted the Chuko-zun twins, Hendale and Tandali, and their parents, Aja and Horis. The Chuko-zun were a disept of the vast (and wealthy) Chuko clan. Aja was an Advocate, qualified for Hub Mercantile Exchange Arbitration, and Horis was a maintenance executive in Vastok Commerce Shipping. There had been a security check, back at the beginning of term, when it became clear that their twins and the daughter of a freelance Receivables Consultant would be spending a certain amount of leisure time together.

One of the twins made an eyeroll/grimace cue to their father, who nodded, and addressed himself to Lewji: “Ten Ulongo, I understand Junari will be at Starna Lake Camp this offterm?” he verified politely.

Lewji nodded. “That was the deal. She’s more than earned it with this term’s qual score.” Junari gave an embarrassed shrug. “Da-ad… they’ll think I’m a grind,” she muttered.

Aja and Horis exchanged amused glances. “We will be having a little sendoff gathering for ’Dale and ’Dali on our skyboat, a three-day tour of the Lake, and then taking them to Camp. We would be so delighted if Juni could join us for this? There will be two or three other young people as well, with my brother’s partner and her sister,” Aja explained.

Junari looked at her father. She probably thought she was being very carefully controlled and grown-up, but the light escaping from all the cracks showed the supernova of hope and anticipation inside. Lewji repressed a sigh. He’d hoped to have a few more days of her company between the end of term and dispatching her to Camp, but… “How very kind of you to offer. Of course she may join you,” he smiled at the Chuko-zuns.

The Academy’s Dean was circulating, chatting briefly with parents, exchanging greetings with students, and in the process tactfully beginning the process of bringing the Term-End Gala to a close. Lewji was just as glad to escape the rarefied atmosphere, so when the Chuko-zuns moved off to greet acquaintances, he placed himself more or less on the Dean’s trajectory.

“Ten Ulongo, I’m glad to see you at the Gala this year.”

“I’m glad I could be here.” Lewji knew full well that implicit in Junari’s subsidy had been the assumption that he’d be a devoted Academy parent, attending functions and volunteering to proctor outings and all the rest of it. Well, that might be fine for parents who had partners, and/or whose work was based on regular hours and locations. Fortunately, he’d had a little extra clout in the recommendations department. And then, Junari had pretty much carved her own way through the subsidy route, consistently placing top honors quals even among peers who included a high percentage of genmod-enhancements.

Still, it didn’t hurt to be a little conciliatory to the Dean, a formidable woman who reminded him very much of his mother. In fact, he hoped the two of them never met. So far he’d successfully prevented that.

The Dean smiled at Junari. “Junari, would you mind giving me a moment alone with your father? Perhaps you could collect your gear for leaving.”

“Yes, Ti Ardasan.” Junari was properly respectful, but the glance she threw at her father held plenty of subtext.

“Ten Ulongo, I’ve been most impressed—really, most impressed, with Junari’s quals this year. So much so, that I have included her on my Recommendation List. Just in case you were thinking of a Lyceum application.”

“A Lyceum application,” Lewji repeated carefully. He’d counted himself beyond lucky to get the recommendation from Stav Benthik that had gotten Junari into the Ermetyne Academy, five years ago. But then, Academies in Lyad Retsa were chartered to accept at least 15% subsidized enrollment. The requirement for Lyceum status was one tenth that, and even a half subsidy would be far, far outside his ability to afford it. “That’s… Well. Thank you. Thank you very much, Ti Ardasan.”

The Dean smiled encouragingly. “You never know, Ten Ulongo. A youngster as bright as Junari deserves every chance.”

Lewji couldn’t agree more. He thanked the Dean, and she moved on to another parent. He was looking around for Junari when he felt a tingling, behind his ear.

He’d almost forgotten he had the mastoid implant. Blinking, he activated his wristcom, and checked the incoming file. Nothing there, so it wasn’t urgent. Just important.

Very, very important.

Apr 052013
 

Read me the story
monozygotic

Of all politics, family politics are the worst. For sheer, bloody-minded, cutthroat viciousness, nothing can match the games played in families. But I’d never expected to kill my brother, for all the times I wanted to. I’m a peaceful type, in spite of all the combat arts training and the marksmanship medals.

Although, if it hadn’t been for Hiro, I never would have taken all those combat arts classes. I learned very early on that I’d need to protect myself. I was his personal punching bag for some years, and he was expert at not leaving marks or evidence.

When we were about seven, one of the House Security officers discovered me curled up under a table in a back hall, soaking wet, shivering, rocking with pain and trying to stifle the noise. Hirotai had jumped me in the grown-ups’ bathroom, and used the high-pressure sprayer. There were no security monitors in the grown-ups’ bathroom. For some reason, our bathroom door hadn’t opened when I tried it. Hiro was good at stuff like that.

“Arti? It’s Arti, isn’t it?”

I’d nodded, still unable to talk coherently.

She’d studied me for a minute, then hauled me gently out, frowning as I winced. She’d called another security staffer to relieve her, and taken me into the staff lounge to dry off. Then she made me drink a cup of hot camsang tea, heavily laced with honey. When I finally stopped shivering, she asked me what happened.

I wasn’t going to tell her. It had already been made clear to me that my father considered me a “gutless whiner,” and my mother believed that my problems were the result of “not thinking positive thoughts.”

The House Security staff had their orders. I’m sure they would have intervened had Hiro actually tried to kill me within range of any of the monitors. But they knew how the pecking order worked, and they liked their jobs.

“Alright, Arti. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” She’d just sat quietly with me for a while, then started talking about the combat arts classes at the Minorki Club. Not that she belonged to the Club, of course. But she was an instructor in her off time, for a little extra cash.

Mother had always encouraged us to find interests at the Club, to “play with the other youngsters.” It gave her more time to attend gallery showings and luncheons.

My diligence paid off and Hiro let up on the physical attacks. I still had to check my bed every night, monitor the power systems in my room, and learn a whole range of skills to keep my datafiles unhackable. All of this might have played out to my advantage. We were expected to grow up smart, and vicious. It was a family tradition, after all.

Theoretically, Hirotai and I shared exactly the same DNA: monozygotic twins. We were raised together. You know all that stuff you’ve heard about twins? Some of it’s true. We had our own language— Hiro used it to let me know when I was “in for it.” We could tell, sometimes, what each other were thinking. That saved my life a couple of times. Didn’t save Hiro.

But some of it—“twin bonding?”— we had a bond, of sorts. Maybe on some twin-consciousness level we knew, like the old tridee series Night Whispers: ‘Only one may live.’

I don’t remember anyone spelling it out, explicitly. But we always knew what we were: Pieces in a very high-stakes game for power in the Orms family. Our father had written a fertility clause into the pair-buyin contract; mother had complied. They had paid extra for in-utero gene therapy to maximize the expression of 72 selected gene-complex coordinates prior to the twinning. High-end stuff, nothing like run-of-the-mill genmod work. Not cheap, not cheap at all.

Father got what he wanted: We tested out off the high end of the scales at our first four Annual Evaluations. We were tracked for the Caventysh Academy on Retsa Starna from the time we were five, immediate admission at twelve— the earliest age allowed. But I never got there. By the time I was twelve, I’d already been in the Kovik Youth Authority facility for over a year.

I didn’t blame my father for not buying me out of the rap. On some level, I felt I deserved it. It had been a better-than-even chance, in my near-instant realtime threat assessment, that the ‘armed intruder’ reported by the security system was Hirotai.

And somewhere under the adrenaline-pumped terror and excitement, there had been a cynical voice in my head speculating that if it worked, he’d claim with convincing sorrow and distress that it was a “prank gone wrong.” And get away with it. And if it hadn’t worked, it would just be a “prank” that didn’t come off, and he’d get docked some minor privilege. Or not, if he claimed he was just testing House Security.

We were expected to be bright, tricky, and aggressive.

But it could have been a genuine intruder, a real assassination attempt, focusing on the children’s wing, aimed at my little brother, or my sisters. Or me. We were Orms, my father was far enough up in the hierarchy and a skilful enough player to be a threat. There were plenty of ambitious cousins. And the security breach had been effected with truly professional skill. Well done, Hiro. He’d apparently been sufficiently frustrated by my ability to lock him out of my files to do something he hated almost as much as he hated me: work.

But I didn’t know that at the time. And I didn’t know he’d built a most clever and untraceable “poison pill” destruct failsafe into his stealth gear and weapon. All I knew was that someone in stealth gear was coming, armed with a seriously lethal Denjik-9 hound-bot.

With a hound-bot, my instructors had emphasized, your best hope is to destroy the operator before he activates it.

They didn’t tell me what to do when the stealth gear dissolved into a shapeless blob that might have been a cheap Karnaval domino, and the headless corpse underneath was dreadfully familiar.

Nor what to do when the hound-bot devolved to a pile of components that was apparently an elaborate version of the ordinary Karnaval effects generators that created lights, music, and holoprojections. It had been three days before the first day of New Year.

Dec 032012
 

Read me the story
Colored electron microscope image of a cell.The Tranest Aureole loomed in the orbit of Ponik Retsa III like a third moon, nearly as big as the airless planet’s two artificial moons, but more streamlined. In a luxuriously-appointed dining room in the Executive Suite, the Executive Committee of Tranest Corporation was sharing breakfast.

The six women and men consuming swan-hawk omelets, sake-marinated pearl shrimp, and slices of iced jasmine melon represented more raw economic power than many entire colonies, or even clusters, in the Hub’s central axes. Everyone was on their best behavior. No one relaxed.

There was no one else in the dining room. Beverage service had been provided, when they first arrived, and an exquisite buffet had been arranged on the sideboard, but now they were alone. Not even bodyguards were permitted, although everyone present had been scanned with a thoroughness that most security services could only dream of achieving.

An active toxscan field over the sideboard showed a reassuringly pale-green nimbus. As the host was Nadis Orms, it was safe to assume that the toxscan covered all of the staggeringly vast array of assassination tools that could be applied in the context of a meal.

Conversation, while they ate, remained casual. Although the Orms family, and its several branches, controlled nearly seventy percent of Tranest, two of the board members present could not be considered family. Nadis had strict rules about discussing family business when non-family members were present. Light family gossip was exchanged, comments on the latest Hub Mercantile Council election, and the occasional discussion of a newly acquired art object or other collectible.

Ni-quan !Xe, senior representative of the !Xe subclan, was seated opposite Nadis. On his left, Stenevra Orms Chuko chatted with Dantas teVrenth-Wansi, who represented the Ermetyne Finance Conglom’s interest in Tranest. Tranest had two representative on Ermetyne’s board, too, as well as Executive Committee representation.

On Nadis’ left, Mengath Farfrazi Orms discussed Mercantile Court politics with Den Kaddets, whose family held the largest single share of Telnas TPEFab, the beacon manufacturers.

The pace of consumption slowed, and finally Nadis winkled the last pearl shrimp from its shell, popped it into her mouth, set the pick down beside her plate, and leaned back in her chair.

There was instant silence.

She gestured to Mengath “I think we could all use a little more coffee.”

He went to the sideboard and picked up the carafe, and moved from place to place like a waiter, topping up the gold-rimmed shell porcelain mugs at each place setting.

“Now. The Colonial School Small-Cluster conference will be opening in less than 600 hours, to discuss progress on the Devlin Survey. Would anyone like to comment?” Nadis glanced around the table, and nodded thanks to Mengath as he topped her coffee, setting down the carafe in front of her and resuming his seat.

Dantas teVrenth-Wansi smiled. “Plus or minus thirty-seven currently sub-Optimal planets potentially released for colonization. We have retainer deposits on escrow for sixteen, and are currently negotiating for another six. I understand Transcluster Finance has nine retainers on deposit.”

Ni-quan !Xe frowned. “That leaves six known potentials available, as well as an additional…” he glanced at a wristcom datafield, “fourteen that might come up as well if the survey is sufficiently, ah… generous.”

“Just so.” Nadis Orms reached for her coffee cup. The green stone in the ring on that hand—the only jewelry she wore—sparkled with red highlights. She picked up the cup, and smiled. “We have put a good deal of effort into ensuring a favorable report on the classification stratae from the Survey.”

She lifted the cup, but not to her lips. “Mengeth. I really think you’d enjoy this more than I would.”

There was a sudden heavy, sticky feeling to the air, and a breathless silence as everyone else looked at Mengeth, whose face had gone an unattractive, muddy shade.

“Nadis, I…”

She continued to hold out the cup to him, a slight smile on her face. But her eyes glittered like ice shards. “Mengeth.”

He shook his head, swallowed.

“Mengeth.” Her voice was velvet over steel. “You’d really prefer it to the alternative.”

He shook his head again.

“Dear me. My new toy,” she glanced at the ring, still glittering with red undertones, “isn’t equipped to provide a precise analysis, but may I assume that you indulged yourself? That we’re not looking at something discreet, and comparatively merciful, here? No apparent myocardial infarcts, or massive cerebral accidents? Something a little more… baroque, perhaps?”

Her eyes had returned to his, and he was unable to look away, even as he shook his head again. “Nadis, it wasn’t my…” he trailed off.

“Not your idea?” Her smile widened. “What a surprise. Well, let me reassure you, Mengeth. If you had co-conspirators, they’ll be treated to something infinitely worse than whatever you provided for me here.”

The silence gathered layers, poised itself on a knife edge, as she held the cup out to him. His eyes searched hers again, and the muddy color paled further. Slowly, he reached out, took the cup, and drank, gulping it down almost frantically.

Someone at the table drew a breath, as though about to speak, and she held up her hand. She sat back, watching with clinical detachment, as his eyes bulged, and he began making unattractive, breathless mewling noises.

His body spasmed in the chair, and rammed hard into the table. His arms twitched, his mouth opened, the tongue protruding swollen and grotesque.

Nadis sighed. “I’m not really a sadist, you know,” she murmured.

In a gesture too swift for the others to follow, she grasped the table pick she’d just laid beside her plate, and plunged it into the back of his neck where the spinal column meets the skull.

The body went limp, sliding with a messy thud against the table, then off the edge of the chair, which tipped momentarily and then righted itself even as what had been a senior Tranest executive landed in a heap on the floor.

She touched a panel on the table edge. “Cleanup crew, please.”

The silence grew spikes and danced a slow waltz around the room while a couple of imperturbable crew members removed the remains of Mengeth Farfrazi Orms, tidied away the place setting, refilled the coffee carafe, and set out fresh cups for everyone.

When the door slid shut behind them, Nadis poured herself a fresh cup of coffee. The ring sparkled a reassuring green.

“As I was saying, we’ve invested in assuring a positive survey result, but there may be some… unforeseen factors, arising at the Conference. I’d like to do a little contingency planning.”

Nov 242012
 

Read me the story:
eerie-looking shark behind rainbow gradientGavith Frenholm tapped the call response tab. The double-blink indicated it was a ComWeb transfer, but there was almost no delay in the connection. The Kyth Agency paid for the highest level of ComWeb service, and then added its own transmission boost from a beacon in the Maccadon system.

The glamorous-looking face that appeared in the receiver might have been a socialite or tridim star. Fashionably ice-blue hair was piled high, and the iridescent “butterfly” pattern face paint offset a bone structure that might have come straight from a top biosculpt studio. But that was deceptive, because Magalin Faris had never had more than the occasional tempsculp job- the planed cheekbones and graceful curves of brow and jaw were entirely her own.

“Gav. What’s up?” The beacon-lag was only a few seconds.

“Boss wants to talk to you. Sealed at your end?”

The brilliant eyes widened slightly, and she nodded. “Sealed now.”

“Putting you through.”

The boss was in a meeting, but as soon as he’d identified the caller, Gavith had pinged his comchip. By now, Ren Dylart would be activating his own secure receiver. Magalin Faris was one of half a dozen trouble-shooters deluxe, “special” employees of Kyth Interstellar who had immediate access.

At her end, Magalin waited, humming a pleased, tuneless little hum. She’d been doing some fairly routine, somewhat boring work at the Central Ophiuchus Consortium Shareholders’ Decennial Conference, and the request to contact the Maccadon office came at just the right time. The Conference was breaking up the next day.

“Mags, I’m sending you a shortcode squirt with a routine personnel consult- an executive vet for a new client, Holiday Safari Worlds.”

He could see her eyes sharpen with interest when the transmission reached her. Dylart flagging her on an assignment that would normally go to one of the many sharp, skilled operatives that populated the Personnel division at Kyth’s Orado HQ, told her the assignment was non-standard. But even on a sealed circuit he wouldn’t give details.

“All right, I’ll get right on it. You’ll be getting my report on the Consortium Conference in about 24 hours, give or take.”

He nodded, and shut down the connection.

The shortcode squirt popped into her in-box an hour later. She deactivated ComWeb transmission, made other security adjustments, and dropped it into the decryption algorithm for the current time and location.

A little over a hundred hours later, she debarked from a Lodis Lines passenger ship to the main nexus port in orbit around Tayun, one of the major commerce nodes in the Ophiuchi Circuit. Gone was the butterfly makeup and the stylish updo. Daynas Oquav (registered alias) wore conservative business attire appropriate to a middling-high subexecutive for a big transcluster firm like Kyth Security.

Even by the laissez-faire standards of the Ophiuchi Circuit, Tayun’s mercantile operations rated the term “swashbuckling.” Friendly colonial government, minimal regulations, excellent family connections with various power nodes in the Hub Mercantile Council, and a long tradition of tolerance for borderline and even outright shady enterprise combined to give it a reputation as one of the Hub’s more vibrant and entrepreneurial business environments. Strict interpretation of the Hub Conflict Conventions and a well-developed “Commerce Logistics and Tactics” sector—the polite euphemism for “mercenaries and assassins” contributed to a history of bloody commercial vendettas that had by now grown their own set of sub-rules and traditions beyond the HCC.

Tayun, in other words, was no place for the timid or conservative to establish business operations. On the other hand, if you were planning on bending rules…

Kyth maintained only a cursory visible presence on Tayun. A small office in a modest towerblock near the shuttle depot. She checked in just after opening time, greeted the local staff, updated her secure Kyth datafile, and then called the client on a standard comservice connection. Two hours later, after a review of the case and a meal, she was at the hotel room door of Jen-zi Cheyn, Commercial Representative of Holiday Safari Worlds.

“Cheyn” was a registered alias, unsurprisingly. Kyth files had supplied the public history of the alias, and an assessment of possible core identities, but with low probability ratings. Bit of a mystery man, Jen-zi Cheyn.

He answered the door of a middling high-grade residential suite in casual business attire that had a hint of Central Axis to it, to Magalin’s experienced eye.

“Ti Oquav?”

They scanned each others’ ID chips. She noted good commercial security masks. He gestured for her to be seated.

“Ten Cheyn,” she began.

“Jen-zi, please, Ti Oquav.”

“Jen-zi. And I’m Daynas. Your case request says HSW is looking for a Chief of Operations.” Tayun business etiquette—right to the point.

“That is so,” he smiled. “I represent the HSW investment consortium, and in fact, I am the Chief Executive. We are soon moving to a new phase of active operations. For this, we require the right mix of talent and qualifications in an operations chief.”

“Kyth Personnel can certainly help you,” she smiled. “We have already done an analysis of Holiday Safari Worlds, naturally. You have interests in the Central Axis Worlds and the Tirvath Cluster—adventure resorts on a dozen colonies, including Procyon Delta-IV and Tantriga, as well as the Jontarou Shikari Xenopreserve.”

He nodded. “And now, we are planning an expansion. We are looking at opening up additional preserves, both Xeno-themed, and terratype, on an unprecedented scale.”

She watched him closely as they agreed on terms for an Executive Search contract—a very standard transaction. About two-thirds of the way through the negotiation, he began to flirt gently with her, and she followed his lead. An agreement reached, he suggested a drink to ratify the agreement—again, all according to Tayun business etiquette.

“Perhaps in the lounge? I would not wish to imply anything irregular.”

Demurely, they proceeded down to the hotel’s major lounge, a rambling, expensively-decorated oasis well-supplied with discreet nooks, many equipped with privacy guards. A host escorted them to one of these.

They made light conversation while drinks were ordered and delivered, then “Cheyn” engaged the alcove’s privacy shield, and fiddled with a control on his wrist-talker.

A glance at her scan showed Magalin that an additional layer of anti-surveillance protection had been activated. She removed a small device from an inner pocket, and twisted the top half to engage her own scrambler shield. Its automatic sensors would warn them now, if anyone approached within half a meter of its protection radius. Anyone looking at them from outside the shield would see their movements and expressions subtly altered, delayed, projected in reverse or out of sequence, and hear only a low, meaningless babble of sound. It would attract no undue attention, having the superficial appearance of normal conversation. But it would defy any attempts to lipread, eavesdrop, or even make sense from the progression of facial expressions and gestures. It would also override any known snoopscan devices not already foiled by the alcove’s privacy shield or “Cheyn’s” snoopscreen.

She sat back, and sipped her drink.

Her companion glanced at the device, then got the abstracted look of someone querying an implanted comlink. His brows went up.

“That’s quite an interesting device, Daynas,” he commented.

“I had the impression you were more than ordinarily interested in privacy, ‘Jen-zi.’”

“Very much so. It might tell you why if I give you my real name: Artavai Orms.”

Magalin had thought she was prepared for any surprise, but her jaw dropped, all the same. “Orms. As in…?”

“Tranest Corporation, yes. Those Orms. I’m, er… not exactly the black sheep of the family. More along the lines of a remittance man.”

The Orms family had held a controlling interest in Tranest Corporation, the terraforming giant, for more than two centuries. The family’s other interests were rumored to reach into almost every other major profitable enterprise in the Ophiuchi Circuit, the Central Axis worlds, and half a dozen other major Clusters in the Hub.

“I see. Then Holiday Safari Worlds…?”

“Has no connection, legitimate or otherwise, with any Tranest interest. I bear my aunt no personal ill-will, please understand. The, ah, estrangement is purely a matter of business. But I have scrupulously observed the separation. HSW represents my own interests, and those of the other capital investors.”

‘My aunt’ could only be a reference to Nadis Orms, Chair of Tranest Corporation and the latest in a line of corporate sharks that had successfully maintained control of one of the richest, most monopolistic corporations in the Hub.

“That…more than adequately explains this elaborate charade, Ten Orms.”

The Tranest solons might want him to keep a distance from the family’s operations, but they unquestionably kept an eye on their remittance relatives—family members paid, in lump sums or regular disbursements, to disappear from the family orbit for various reasons. And they could afford some of the sharpest eyes in the surveillance business. Magalin resisted an impulse to look over her shoulder.

“Please, let’s stay with Jen-zi. I rather like my alias,” his mouth twisted wryly. “The specific problem I’m tossing in to Kyth’s lap is somewhat related to my status with Tranest. I have, as I’ve said, kept out of their business. Now I’m looking for ways to keep them out of mine.”

She made a neutral “hmm” noise, inviting more information.

“Tranest has no commercial interest in a small-time operation like HSW. If anything, they’re happy that I’m keeping myself occupied profitably, at a sufficient distance. But some of our new ventures might, if brought to the attention of the wrong people, provoke some unwanted interest.”

“In other words, you want whoever is selected for your Operations position to be unaffiliated with any Tranest interests.”

He nodded. “We do have the usual contingent of information channels, formal and informal, at various levels of the company. We’ll leave them where they are. But I’d like to keep specifics about our planned expansion under the radar as long as possible.”

“I see.” She waited, to see if any more information was forthcoming, but he just raised his eyebrows. “Is this something I can rely on Kyth to undertake, discreetly, as part of the executive search process? And if so, what are we talking about with regards to cost, and what arrangements would you suggest for payment?”

Magalin was calculating what it might take to fulfill such a contract. Mercantile espionage at the level of Tranest Corporation would involve cluster-spanning activity, and maintaining discretion would necessitate a very tight, very high-level team. The interface with an ordinary executive search would have to be handled with great delicacy not to raise alarms among Jen-zi’s Tranest monitors.

But the process, if undertaken, would undoubtedly yield a good deal of useful data—secondary benefit for Kyth. And she rather liked Jen-zi, so far.

She named a price.

Jen-zi just nodded. He’d been prepared—Kyth didn’t come cheap even for standard security or investigative services.

“Payment arrangements?”

“We’ll let you know.”

She deactivated the scrambler and made it clear that although Daynas Oquav wasn’t averse to a little pleasant flirtation with a client, it was strictly professional courtesy.

They parted amicably, Daynas on her way back to the local Kyth office to register the executive search contract, and set the standard procedures in motion. There was no detectable sign of any surveillance on Jen-zi Cheyn.

But then, there wouldn’t be.

Sep 302012
 

Read me the story:
Impressionistic landscape with golden and peach hills, and blue-shadowed trees and house in the cleft of the hills.The navlink pinged. They were approaching the point where the stratline’s autonav would drop them. Mohv fed a Kyth shortcode to the interface that enabled them to use the stratline powerlink without the system recording it, and let the flowcar descend slowly to a contour altitude well below the now sparsely-occupied traffic lane.

The evening color display was being replaced by the pale radiance of starblaze. Beyond the Center dome, the tavis fields didn’t dim the blaze for nightcycle except with local overrides, so it was plenty light enough to view the rolling terrain sloping down to the Park on their right, and the widening gaps between dark-shielded or artificially-lit clusters of human habitation.

The clusters grew further apart and they seemed to be navigating across entirely uninhabited territory. Only a faint glow on the far horizon, the Pelarati College domes, gave any hint of why a stratline led in this direction. Mohv glanced down at the position ping on the nav board, then squinted into the hills ahead on their left.

“Says it’s up there.”

A faint blue light appeared in a fold between two ridges. “Must be that.”

Rawls was still staring into the scanfield. “Yeah, the security field is registering on the PPS now. Should I ping them?”

Quiddik shrugged. “Why not.”

“Standard acknowledgement, no voice, no vid.”

“Okay.” Quiddik warmed the aux power battery and released the stratline link. The flowcar slid smoothly out of the traffic pattern, the starblaze giving it a faint shadow on the uneven terrain below.

“Big!” Rawls was surprised. The habitat ahead was dark-shielded, but through the polarized screen faint lights were now visible, indicating a sprawling, many-structured habitat spread along the bank of a stream that fed into the Park’s riparian network. As they got closer the blue light resolved itself to a fieldgate indicator.

At their approach, a pleasant tenor voice, apparently a recording, wafted through the nav board’s speaker. “Hi, welcome to Headwaters. We don’t have accommodation for guest vehicles inside the security field, but you’re welcome to park on the secure pad by the gate. We’ll be with you shortly.”

The two Kyth operatives exchanged glances. Quiddik maneuvered the flowcar gently down on its grav-cushion while Rawls confirmed their arrival for Dispatch, and activated various recording devices.

The fieldgate was a simple archway with a stone pad in front of it. As they stepped onto it, the gate irised open. There was no one on the other side, but a disembodied voice from the stanchion just inside addressed them in a slightly husky alto: “Please come through to the main house, ahead and to your left. I’ll send Stav to meet you.” In the background, they could hear a murmur of subdued conversation, someone playing a vianallo—quite well—and a tenor voice saying “why me?” while another laughed.

Again they exchanged glances. Rawls indicated in Kyth silent-talk that they were in a surveillance field and presumably being recorded, and that their live-transmit recording device was being efficiently jammed, but not the static recorder. Quiddik shrugged and they set off in the direction indicated.

A series of ground lights came on, illuminating a path that wound between a dim-shrouded variety of shapes breathing living scents into the cooling air. The stream in the distance burbled gently over rocks, adding a background soundtrack. Quiddik was conscious of an impulse to relax—but that only made him more alert. He blinked, purposefully, to activate his IR lenses.

With that assistance, the landscape was revealed as strips and patches of garden plots, winding along the path and extending back from it. At least, he assumed they were garden plots. Plants arranged in various configurations, some orderly, some less so, some crowded, some sparse. Here and there a bench or an array of stones or some other apparently purposeful object varied the arrangements.

A bright figure approached along the path, presumably “Stav,” and he deactivated the lenses. As his eyes readjusted, additional lighting activated, this time from above, glare-free but light enough to make out the amiable expression on Stav’s face. He was almost as tall as Mohv, not so muscular around the upper torso, but he moved with supple poise and easy assurance. He might be in his thirties.

He approached, and stopped, unostentatiously out of arm’s reach. “Good evening. I’m Stavann Kassinger. A call came in from Kyth just a few minutes ago. I’m to ask you each for a code?”

Codes given, as well as their names, Stav nodded. “Thanks. This way to the main house.” He gestured, and then stood aside to let them pass him. They walked ahead of him about fifty meters along the winding path, to the single-level, rambling building. Quiddik had the hyper-alert feeling he generally associated with being observed through a range-finder, and wondered why someone had bothered with the Kyth Agency at all.

He and Rawl stopped politely on the stone threshold.

Stav smiled apologetically. “Gentlemen, I’m certain that you’re armed. We have a rather strict policy about who’s allowed to carry weapons indoors at Headwaters, so if you don’t mind, I’ll ask you to leave your weapons in the stash?” He gestured to a recessed panel, with a simple thumb lock on the frame, next to the door on the left.

He’d maintained that unobtrusive, arms-length distance from them, and had quietly dropped into a flanking position that left several possible lines of fire from concealed observers. Somewhat bemusedly, Mohv glanced at Rawl, and the shorter man, with a slight shrug, reached out and activated the thumb lock. The panel slid open; it was a featureless cube, but Mohv knew battlesteel in all its guises.

He and Rawls placed the obvious guns inside, and then, without even a sideways glance, the less obvious weapons each carried. Rawls thumbed the lock again, and the panel closed. Stav smiled at them. “Thanks. We have our little ways. Appreciate your cooperation.”

The door opened. Another man, this one possibly in his late twenties, stockier-built, but with a round, innocent-looking face under a shock of black hair, stepped back and smiled. “Welcome to Headwaters. I’m Chun.” He glanced at Stav. “Ani says take them through to the workroom.”

Their guide nodded, and led them along a convoluted route that included hallways, short staircases, rooms, a few ramps, out through a courtyard with more garden in it, back in, around corners, down another ramp and then through a wide, low-arched doorway into a torrent of sound that resolved itself into two women and a man jamming on vianallos and a set of kanga drums.

There were five other people in the room besides the musicians; three adults, two children in the between-toddler-and-teenager range. One of the adults was a rather thick-set woman who might be in her fifties, possibly sixty—middle age, at any rate. She had a long, gray-streaked braid of hair over one shoulder and wore a loose, colorful coverall in the Parsi style. She looked up, saw the three men in the doorway, smiled, and waved, gesturing to one of the long sofas, and then turned her head back to the musicians, who were reaching some kind of climactic musical moment. Quiddik wasn’t a Vils fan, but he recognized the driving lilt and layered rhythms that characterized the style. He and Rawl sat.

The music drove to a torrential conclusion, with a coda, and a flourish, and the three musicians sat back, grinning and laughing. The others all applauded; the two Kyth men grinned politely. The woman with the braid turned to Mohv and Declan. “You will be Mister Rawl and Mister Quiddik,” she said in Translingue, but with a Parsi lilt to her speech. “I am Anisala.”

She looked around at the others. “Stav and Chun you have met.” She gestured to the male and female vianallo players. “Varanada and Pek, and our kanga player is Tularik.” She indicated the other young woman, who had a scan console in her lap. “Nelauk.” The children were now staring curiously at the strangers. “Come, Gavanne, Hetra, meet Mr. Rawl and Mr. Quiddik.”

The children nodded politely.

“And now, Gavanne, what was the deal?”

The girl, who might have been around ten, looked annoyed, then shrugged resignedly. “One more song, and then bed.”

Anisala smiled, and looked at the remaining adult, a slender man wearing his long dark hair in elaborate Parsi pattern-braids. “Teshi v’arhaql an, Manchiv.”

He grinned. “Only when they’re here, Ani. They’re trying to impress you. Night greets, Hetra, Gavanne.”

The boy, a year or so younger than his sister, reluctantly got to his feet. He put his palms together, fingertips under his chin, and bowed to Manchiv, and then Anisala. “Night keep you, taka, and my father.”

“Oh, courteous young warrior!” applauded the female vianallo player, detaching the keyclamps from her fretboard. She grinned at the boy, and he bowed to her as well, then rather spoiled the gravity of the gesture with a slight bounce. “That’s right, isn’t it, Pek?”

“Just so, Gav. More tomorrow.”

The girl sighed, and stood up as well, and took her brother’s hand. “All right. Night keep, Father, Ani.” She glanced back over her shoulder at the two Kyth operatives as she exited.

It wasn’t lost on Mohv that Stav and Chun’s casual-seeming positions were angled precisely where he and Declan might have been, had they been on alert protecting the target.

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